Transforming Church Team Blog
resourcing leaders…reenvisioning the future

My New Book, Chapter Two, Part Four

Kevin Ford

A Strategic Scenario
A highly regarded not for profit focuses its mission on arts education in schools in lower income neighborhoods which must often forgo any sort of arts curriculum. The not for profit depends on the generosity of foundations and individuals in the community and an annual grant from the local arts and sciences council.

Then an economic downturn ravages the city in which the not for profit is based. Unemployment skyrockets as the major industries in the community merge or fold. A nation-wide recession leads to a declining pool of charitable resources.

At its semi-annual board meeting, the organization’s leaders hear the shell-shocked Executive Director describe a 20% decline in contributions to the organization over the past year and the bad news that the arts and science council grant will be trimmed in half in the coming year. The board is faced with a series of strategic questions:
-Since we can’t maintain our current level of service, what should we offer or not offer from our current menu?
-Is arts education a pressing issue in our hurting community and, if not, what other needs should we meet?
-What sorts of alternative programs could we offer that might cost less money?
-How do we maintain quality if we are forced to reduce personnel?
-We focus on five areas now; should we reduce that focus to one or two to ride out this downturn?
-What needs in our constituency are we best equipped to meet at the present time?

Strategic challenges require a different, and in some ways more sophisticated, set of skills than tactical problems. But strategic acumen does not cover every type of leadership challenge. Again and again I have discovered that when strategic direction is established, the result is that a whole different set of issues surface – issues related to values, behaviors, and attitudes. It is this most complex type of challenge that is illustrated by the third side of the Leadership Triangle.

Transformational Challenges
Transformational problems can also be called “adaptive”, “generative” and innovative” challenges. These are the truly vital challenges, which relate to values, behaviors, and attitudes. Transformational problems are often on the systemic level and are not usually visible to the naked eye. My research indicates that less that one percent of leaders naturally possess the skill set needed to wrestle with transformative issues. And this is why our organizations get stuck. Very simply, real and lasting change happens only on the transformational level.

The essence of a transformational problem is that values are in competition. In the East Lake scenario, Tom Cousins had to balance the competing values of corporations and financial institutions (making investments which would result in profit to their shareholders), political leaders (minimizing political risk to insure re-election) and the residents of East Lake themselves (maintaining a place to live and some measure of personal security). The real work of leadership is done on the transformational level as a skilled leader accepts and even provokes conflict over values so that clarity can be reached and real change can be created.

Thinkers such as Ron Heifetz, Marty Linsky, Margaret Wheatly, and Peter Senge have written wisely and well on the nature of transformative challenges.

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One Response to “My New Book, Chapter Two, Part Four”

  1. Kevin, a nice summary of the different issues raised between strategic planning and transformational work.


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